Folding drives cortical thickness variations

Maria A. Holland, Silvia Budday, Gang Li, Dinggang Shen, Alain Goriely, Ellen Kuhl

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Citations (Scopus)


The cortical thickness is a characteristic biomarker for a wide variety of neurological disorders. While the structural organization of the cerebral cortex is tightly regulated and evolutionarily preserved, its thickness varies widely between 1.5 and 4.5 mm across the healthy adult human brain. It remains unclear whether these thickness variations are a cause or consequence of cortical development. Recent studies suggest that cortical thickness variations are primarily a result of genetic effects. Previous studies showed that a simple homogeneous bilayered system with a growing layer on an elastic substrate undergoes a unique symmetry breaking into a spatially heterogeneous system with discrete gyri and sulci. Here, we expand on that work to explore the evolution of cortical thickness variations over time to support our finding that cortical pattern formation and thickness variations can be explained – at least in part – by the physical forces that emerge during cortical folding. Strikingly, as growth progresses, the developing gyri universally thicken and the sulci thin, even in the complete absence of regional information. Using magnetic resonance images, we demonstrate that these naturally emerging thickness variations agree with the cortical folding pattern in n = 9 healthy adult human brains, in n = 564 healthy human brains ages 7–64, and in n = 73 infant brains scanned at birth, and at ages one and two. Additionally, we show that cortical organoids develop similar patterns throughout their growth. Our results suggest that genetic, geometric, and physical events during brain development are closely interrelated. Understanding regional and temporal variations in cortical thickness can provide insight into the evolution and causative factors of neurological disorders, inform the diagnosis of neurological conditions, and assess the efficacy of treatment options.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2757-2778
Number of pages22
JournalEuropean Physical Journal: Special Topics
Issue number17-18
Publication statusPublished - 2020 Nov

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020, The Author(s).

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Materials Science
  • General Physics and Astronomy
  • Physical and Theoretical Chemistry


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